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Human Brain Schematic

The memory retrieval process

There's a class of Mandela Effect which could be explained by the fact the method the brain uses to store and retrieve memories is the same for everyone.

The explanation is that an efficiency mechanism uses key points and triggers to fill in any blanks. The missing parts were considered unnecessary at the time of initial storage, because further processing is used to draw them out, or "recreate" them, at the later point of retrieval. Computer scientists are pointing to AI systems as using a similar process when reassembling incomplete data. A statistical "likeliness" algorithm is used in conjunction with the original data stored to produce what is then used as the full memory, and that is then treat as being indistinguishable from the original.

Evolution may have created a sliding scale of memory detail required for humans to survive. This happened alongside the intelligence needed to recreate the memory when necessary. The importance of the memory would then be directly related to the level of detail stored.

The famous Star Wars Mandela Effect

Consider the "I am your Father" Star Wars Mandela Effect as an example. There are a few things everyone agrees on about this. First, the scene is where Darth Vader is telling Luke he is his father. The next is that the sentence begins with one word. If you think about it, that pretty much limits what that word could be. It's not going to be something random - "Elephant, I am your Father", to make the point via exaggeration. This only leaves a few possibilities.

  • Yes, I am your Father 
  • Actually, I am your Father 
  • Son, I am your Father 
  • Jedi, I am your Father 
  • Wait, I am your Father 
  • Stop, I am your Father 

... and so on. Some there try to fit in the scene and the overall story, but on further inspection don't sit well at all. The only two which could fit properly are "Luke" and "No", and the "No" ties in better with Luke's previous sentence: "He told me you killed him!".

star wars 400x300

Now we come to the "ultracondensed summary" concept. This is where a popular meme, or quote, somehow arises which encapsulates the entire production, ie. the book or movie etc, in one short phrase. The key is that it's irrelevant whether the phrase was actually said or not, because it's not aimed at hard-core fans who would know that. Instead, it's used just as a quick "instant memory-jogging summary". Examples are "Beam me up, Scotty", "Me Tarzan, you Jane" and "Elementary, My Dear Watson". These were not in the originals, yet in the minds of those who were casually aware of them, the whole production, or the main parts of it they needed to recall to "get this gist" of them, springs to mind when hearing them. It's almost as if in these people, just an unfocused trigger memory with only enough detail to facilitate the blanks being confidently filled in later when required, is needed.

So we have a hugely popular production, Star Wars, which many will definitely know line by line, with most not really remembering that much detail but still knowing enough to remember Darth Vader being Lukes Father. We have the only real possibility of the line in question beginning with either "No" or "Luke", and the whole point of the scene is the big revelation - in fact it's the main storyline of the whole production. As a nice extra, you have the deep, distinctive voice in which it was delivered which all those remembering it will hear in their heads when thinking about it. This serves to reinforce the confidence once retrieved, since people will swear they heard the whole thing in Darth Vaders voice.

When the memory is being stored, the "gist" of what it represents is stronger in some than the detail. So whilst many will remember the line starting with "No", because that was stored too, many don't and so need to fill in the blank, which considering the scene's context is a very logical "Luke". In effect, those who recall "Luke" are retrieving more of the gist than the detail, and their cue is the fact they definitely remember Darth is talking to Luke.

AI now has a memory

peace robot 300x300Until now, AI's have had a serious limitation. They needed to be taught each and every time, from scratch, how to perform any new tasks required of them. That's all just changed with Google's DeepMind, which gives AI a human-like memory.

The storage and retrieval process can now leverage prior operations, which is exactly what the human brain does. That includes the inference, using statistical computations, of the "fill in the blanks" process for incomplete data.

It's likely a similar post-retrieval processing computation will be made for AI when retrieving incomplete data, and a statistical calculation be performed on the likelihood of the missing parts given the associated signals. In our example, an AI choosing between "No" and "Luke" would give a probability weight to each candidate, and based on what Luke just said, "No" would probably win.

Of course this won't always be correct, because some meme's are deliberately wrong which is part of their charm. Star Trek aims "To Boldly Go", eternally splitting the infinitive in a charming but grammatically incorrect way. In these instances there is just no substitute for full storage.

Retrieval cues

Here's a video from the Khan Academy which describes the retrival process being based on cues:

Encoding strategies

The parallels between the processes for storing computer data and the way the human brain does it are striking:


Further processing of the memories occurs after the base elements have been retrieved:

Image via freepik.